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Do Designers Actually Exploit The Poor While Trying To Do Good? Jan Chipchase Responds

Chipchase answers tough questions posed by critics—and tough questions he poses to himself.

Recently, at the PopTech Conference in Camden, Maine, Jan Chipchase, Frog’s all-star field researcher, was giving a presentation on his travels in search of novel design solutions when a person in the audience lobbed a pointed question: "What is your motivation? Why do you do this?" When Chipchase began to respond, the audience member interrupted and asked again, "No, what is your motivation?" The follow-up hanging in the air was, "How do you sleep at night?"

As the back and forth continued, the hostility became more palpable. The audience grew quiet and unsettled. Were Chipchase and those doing similar work really helping those in developing countries by creating better products for them? What if, instead, they were simply scraping local communities for big ideas and then riding them to big profits?

Whether you’re a fan of design research in the field—or more sympathetic to that audience member—you can’t gloss over the issue. Who is the best poised to bring innovation to the developing world? Big corporations that are already rich? Or people living in the countries themselves? Do big corporations bring better standards of living, or simply sugared water and useless doodads?

[A product in the making? One of Chipchase’s field shots of mobile money in use in India at a chai cart.]
Chipchase didn’t respond directly to the question at the time, but later he sat down with Co.Design and addressed the topic more specifically: "It doesn’t take much effort to find something about globalization to be incensed about: Starbucks squeezing out your neighborhood coffee shop from the prime location; riots in Indonesia triggered by a stock market crash in Wall Street impacting oil subsidies. Coke logos being painted onto remote pristine mountain ranges. Make no mistake: Big companies, governments, organizations, agencies need watching, need to be held to account, and in many markets hold a disproportionate amount of power." But Chipchase has thought long and hard about these issues, and has a sophisticated view informed by millions of miles traveled. He believes that if those in the West aren’t working with the emerging markets they’re developing for, the products suffer and people lose out. If we don’t design for these markets, then the alternative for them is usually no design at all—and that means no designs solving their specific problems, and no economic might to prove their standing in the wider economy.

Bruce Nussbaum sparked a similar conversation on Co.Design a year ago, with his provocative essay, "Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?" arguing that the still relatively young field of humanitarian design lacks in rigor and established methodology, making our efforts look a lot like the imperialism it purports to fight against. But that debate has only grown more relevant: New graduate programs are popping up, aiming to marry design and social good; the line between consumers and constituents is growing more blurry.

Design for social-good usually falls squarely in the purview of nonprofits. But many have become disillusioned with that model, after countless feel-good startups have petered out. Instead, some of the best are seeking to integrate as much market thinking into their process as possible.

In 2001, Tim Prestero quit his PhD program at MIT, and founded Design That Matters, a nonprofit that started as a class project. The ultimate objective of this almost all-volunteer organization is to aid the poor through product development. As an institution, it is specifically founded on nonprofit ideals, or as Prestero puts it, "I like the [nonprofit status] because it’s a kind of discipline. I like the fact that, like Odysseus, we can chain ourselves to the mast. Google’s commitment to don’t be evil isn’t enforced by any outside body. Our commitment to don’t be evil is actually written in law."

But, he continues, "If we look at China, their industrialization has brought nearly 700 million people from abject poverty to something resembling a global middle class, which required the consumption of dirty coal, damaging the environment, and all that kinds of stuff. And yet, these are people who, 20 years ago, were succumbing to treatable illness, dirty water, all those kinds of things. So is that a net positive? In some ways, Chinese industrialization has helped more people than any human rights, liberal, handwringing attempt. To say somehow that it is bad to have capitalism as an intent is wrong. But I’m also a little put off by the reactionary. Now the enthusiasm is that capitalism is the cure for all evil, or all that ails us, like if you’re a social entrepreneur, to run a nonprofit is foolishness; it’s inefficient and it’s not sustainable, and unless people are paying for your stuff, you know, you’re never going to know if it really has value."
[Chipchase observes a toothbrush in India and grain processing in Nigeria.]

Clearly, design for social good should almost always have a quantifiable impact. But bringing a product to market is often simply beyond nonprofits. So is Chipchase simply pillaging intellectual property from around the world for corporate gain, as the question from the audience suggested, or is he helping to serve populations that otherwise wouldn’t be reached?

"The assumption is that targeting those [emerging] markets is inherently bad. But the poor can least afford poor products," says Chipchase. "Yes, we have to meet our corporate clients’ needs, but also, ultimately the products developed have to meet the needs of who we’re serving. The goal of design research is to spend time with people. The alternative is not spending time with them." Chipchase argues that critics of this process are themselves making a terrible assumption about the poor: That they’re simply victims, or, worse yet, that they’re dumb and can’t think for themselves—that they can’t decide what’s valuable to them, and vote with their dollars. Moreover, as the many failures of aid in Africa and elsewhere have shown, humanitarian charity isn’t a sustainable model—the effects can be few, and the money pit bottomless. By contrast, it’s possible that products made via for-profit enterprises are more equitable than simply charitable.

Consider what’s happening at Design That Matters. The organization is putting its latest product, the Firefly, a device to cure jaundice in newborn babies, into clinical trial. Barring any catastrophes, it will then go to a pilot program in Vietnam this coming April. After the pilot program, there are two possible pathways this product will take to reach its market. The first, and more traditional, is that the Firefly will be made by a local Vietnamese manufacturer, Medical Technology Transfer and Services, and then distributed by the East Meets West Foundation, a nonprofit.

You might call the second possible pathway a quasi-capitalist model. And it might offer vastly larger scale: the East Meets West Foundation could instead sign a partnership with a major multi-national that currently cranks out an incubator every 30 minutes. That company would then produce and distribute the Firefly through their for-profit emerging markets medical arm. Why would they care? After all, as Prestero says, "their next 400 million customers aren’t coming from the United States, they’re coming from emerging markets."

The development of the Firefly, which looks like a simple incubator, actually took 10 years to perfect. It’s no surprise that the model for getting it out into the world will require just as much care and boldness.

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